It was a jarring experience. The first two features of the experience, heat and light, came as shock. It was extraordinarily warm, like standing in front of an oven. And the light was all wrong. The color of the world was orange-red, somewhat burned in tone, heavy and thick and dull; it was an active orange-red, not merely laying on the surface things but leaping out everywhere into the air. Red fierceness. It tired the eyes.
They stood in what seemed like a large circular temple with large pillars, standing upon a vast expanse of sand. It looked like it was open air, but every so often a cloud of dust stirred up by the wind would blow inward and be stopped by what seemed like a shimmer in the air. The Pavilion itself seemed to be made of massive blocks of sandstone, with swirling patterns of red, yellow, and orange, although perhaps some of the color was due to the harsh light. But it was perhaps not sandstone at all, for as Kubiri and Katja walked across the platform, the wall of the central portion of the Pavilion rippled. The rippling was not quite like water; but if you imagine a much more viscous substance into which a stone has been dropped, leading to small waves moving slowly outward, it was like that. It made the whole building seem to be a living thing.
They walked around. The Pavilion seemed to be deserted, and there was nothing there to indicate that anyone had ever been there at all.
"Didn't you say there was supposed to be someone to meet us?" Katja asked.
"Yes," said Kubiri. "Perhaps they are out for the moment."
Almost as if in answer, the wall immediately behind him began to ripple, first gently, then violently, and then to pull apart completely, like wet paper. But the tear was more regular than you would get with wet paper, and it soon formed a pointed arch. Out of the opening stepped a Samar.
This Samar, green-eyed, was slightly tawny in color with a saffron-colored caftan, and a three-peaked hat. Unlike every other Samar Katja had seen, this one's hat was tilted straight back on the head, rather than to the side. Like all Samar, she had a closed tablet strapped to her wrist.
"Greetings," the Samar said, then gave the typical unpronounceable Samar name, followed by, "but I am called Sunaram. I am Samar Ambassador to the Zezai." The voice was not as resonant and rich as the voices of the Samar Katja had met before. It was thinner, but still had a melodious quality to it.
"Greetings, Sunaram," said Kubiri. Then he introduced himself with his name and his short-name, and then gestured at Katja. "This is Katja Ilkaiomenen, who is called Katja." He turned to Katja. "Sunaram is one of our greatest diplomatic minds. She is perhaps the foremost expert in practical xenosociology in all the universes."
"You are too kind," said Sunaram.
"Not at all," said Kubiri. "I have closely studied your work on social negotiation among the species of Involescence. It is some of the greatest work of our day. And your modal decision algebra for incommensurable utilities has saved me from many a potential mistake in complicated negotiations."
Sunaram bowed, clearly delighted. "It is heartening to know that someone has found it useful," she said. "One often wonders...." she stopped a moment, looking thoughtful and began to hum a moment. Then she said, with barely suppressed excitement. "You are the Kubiri who presented on the use of generalized error statistics in simulation epistemology for the Diplomatic Logic Society!"
Now it was Kubiri's turn to bow. "A youthful work, I am afraid," he said, "and insignificant compared to some of the advances that have been made recently by Nakiri of the High Council and others."
"Do not understate the significance of that presentation!" Sunaram protested. "Without it I could not have done much of my work with Involescence!"
Kubiri opened his mouth to say something, but then suddenly checked himself and gestured at Katja. "I fear we will be boring our colleague here with shop-talk."
"Of course," said Sunaram. "Many apologies! The two of you should come inside."
This they did, and the wall closed almost like a zipper behind them. The light inside was much less harsh, and much more like the sunlight of Sylvenia, and while it was not what Katja would have ordinarily considered cool, it was much less warm than outside.
"What is this building made of?" asked Katja.
"I believe it is made of nanites in some kind of colloidal solution. They are capable of forming dense sheets in the walls, but are also capable of concerted movement if given the proper commands. If you ever want to take a walk outside, just press that button there. But," she said, waving a finger at Katja and Kubiri, "do not ever leave the Pavilion itself. The atmosphere on this planet will begin liquefying your lungs within minutes."
They descended some stairs to a very large room with furniture and equipment scattered throughout. There was a sideboard with what looked like crackers and fruits. There was also a pitcher of water.
Sunaram gestured at it. "I am afraid I had only general information about Sylven physiology to help me in picking out what might be good, but I hope something of this is acceptable. I preferred to err on the safe side, so I fear it might be a little bland."
Katja poured herself a cup of water and spread a red paste on a cracker. It was indeed bland, but there was a slight salty-sweetness that went well with the water. "So," she said, "since I will be going across the universes into unknown territory, what will I have to do to prepare?"
"You are truly willing to commit?" Kubiri asked seriously.
"I have thought about it," said Katja. "And I would be lying if I were to say that I had not seriously considered going home. But then I always think about what that might say about the Syylven. We are a quiet people, but we are not afraid of hard tasks. And I do not think I could be a proper Sylven if I were to run away from this. Regardless of what happens, I must represent my people as best I can, and show that we can show ourselves worthy of a place in the Alliance."
"If you are certain," said Sunaram, "the procedure is quite simple. You will be inoculated against certain illnesses. The Zezai, who are preparing the inoculation, will need a blood sample for that. Also, we do not have time to teach you the langauge you will need to know, so the Zezai are also preparing translation nanites, which will directly interact with your brain to translate the language."
"Is that safe?"
"Oh, yes," said Sunaram. "It is far inferior to the real thing, however, because it only provides a general background in the language. When you actually get there, it will be important to keep reminding yourself that the translation does not take into account subtle dialectal differences and often has to be approximate. The translation nanites will also defend your brain against direct tampering; the Zezai will need a brain scan to give them a reference point."
Katja did not like the sound of that, but she agreed to both. The blood sample and brain scan were both taken quite easily, with far less fuss than they would have taken in a Sylven medical clinic, and Sunaram went to deliver them to the Zezai.
"Will the procedure be difficult?" Katja asked while she was gone.
"I have never seen it done," said Kubiri. "I wish I could guarantee that it would be pleasant, but the Zezai are a swarm species rather than samaroids; one never knows what to expect. We would do it all with Samar technology, but for this you really need the best and highest quality, and with nanotechnology that means the Zezai. I don't think it will be difficult; but there might be some disorientation and adjustment required."
This, of course, only made Katja feel nervous.
Sunaram returned. "I have given the Zezai the sample and the scan. It will probably be a few hours before we get any response. One of the difficulties with being ambassador to a civilization like the Zezai is that even simple conversations can take hours." She turned to Katja. "As for the rest, there is not much else. After the inoculation there will be some briefing on the people you are being sent to, and the kinds of things you will need to negotiate, but you will have considerable discretion, as long as you conform to Samar diplomatic policy."
"What is Samar diplomatic policy?"
"It is very simple," said Kubiri. "All people have some inkling of beauty, but it is difficult to get a firm grasp on it. Thus we are struck by it in this or that form while beauty itself eludes our comprehension. Progress in civilized life consists of that social and mental discipline by which one comes to discern the beautiful in everything, and thence to discern its underlying pattern. From knowledge of the beautiful in virutous life and in just exchanges within society, a people may proceed from knowledge of the beautiful in skill, in virtue, and in knowledge itself. Then the coherent and integral harmony of these things may become manifest by being brought under one principle, which is beauty itself. All peoples without exception are to be encouraged in this ascent to beauty; none are to be discouraged from it. All actions and negotiations should tend to this, and should themselves be consistent with one's own ascent, regardless of what they may be. Everything else is just minor details."
"The perpetual Samar pursuit of beauty," said Katja.
"Always and ever," said Sunaram. "Shall we go up?"